Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao

Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to run the Department of Transportation, steered clear of taking a position on privatizing air traffic control (ATC) during her nomination hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce & Transportation.

"I'd like to get confirmed first," she joked in response to a question about where she stands on the issue from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) the top ranking Democrat on the committee.

As part of the debate over FAA reauthorization last spring, the House Transportation Committee passed a bill calling for management of ATC to be shifted from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation overseen by a board of stakeholders.

Supporters of the measure argued that it would speed implementation of NextGen, the GPS-based technology that is replacing the radar-based system currently in use in the U.S., while removing ATC from the uncertainty of the highly politicized appropriations process in Congress.

Opponents say that the process of reorganizing how the ATC is administered would delay the implementation of NextGen and increase costs.

The bill caused a division between the House and the less sympathetic Senate. U.S. airlines, too, were divided, with Delta sharply opposing privatization while the trade group Airlines for America was its chief backer.

The measures didn't make it into the 15-month FAA reauthorization that Congress eventually passed in July, but House transportation committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is widely expected to reintroduce it this year when the next debate on reauthorization begins anew. 

Chao told the Senate commerce committee Wednesday that ATC privatization is a huge issue that will require a national discussion and national consensus.

"The administration has not made a decision on this point, and I expect that come Jan. 20 this will be one of the issues in which the White House will have some say as to where the position of the administration will be," she said. "I am open to all ideas."

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